If you've ever participated in an outdoor hobby with a technical component -- like climbing or whitewater kayaking -- you're probably familiar with the need to practice. The skills you need to get yourself out of a failed rappel or to fish a friend out of swift-running water are perishable things; if you don't practice them, they start to fade around the edges.
That's not such a big deal when failure has negligible consequences -- say, baking cupcakes or creating a fancy hairstyle. But if somebody's life is literally hanging in the balance, you can't afford to be at anything less than the top of your game.
That's one reason why the Alaska Mountain Rescue Group spends so much time practicing. I caught up with them about a month ago, just as they wrapped up a field exercise at a pullout near Mile 110 of the Seward Highway. On the surface it was a mock search and rescue mission for three overdue hikers, including some medium-angle rescue rigging to get one of the injured hikers back down the rocky bluffs that are so common along the highway pullouts.
But in the machinery behind the scenes, it was a lot more: a chance for experienced members to brush up their skills. An opportunity to break in a new incident commander in the field. Preparation for the organization's next five-year recertification with the Mountain Rescue Association. And more training for a few new members of AMRG, who are still putting in the 12 to 18 months of regular training it takes to get fully up to speed.
As a group, AMRG's roughly 35 active members put in more time training than you'd spend at a full-time job -- more than 22,000 man hours over the last 10 years. (The organization itself is much older than that; it was originally founded to respond to respond to accidents on Denali in the late '50s and early '60s, before the National Park Service had climbing rangers in place on the mountain.)
AMRG is an eclectic group -- about 80 percent men and 20 percent women of all ages and all occupations, from biologists to jet pilots, doctors, IT workers and teachers. The glue that holds them together, aside from an obvious sense of fun and camaraderie, is their willingness to step away from their personal lives or day jobs and head out into the mountains or woods when you call for help.
AMRG handles 30 to 40 rescues in an average year -- about a tenth of the Department of Public Safety's 350 to 400 yearly rescues, although they're just one of about 60 groups the DPS can call on. They're available year-round, 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The four stages of a rescue
You can't just dial up AMRG and ask for a rescue yourself. You have to call the Alaska State Troopers or dial 911 and let them know you have a backcountry emergency. The troopers will assess the situation and request appropriate SAR resources, whether it's AMRG or other volunteer groups, including aircraft, watercraft and K-9 teams when necessary.
"It's usually about 1:30 a.m. when somebody doesn't come back from a trip," Dean Knapp, AMRG board member and membership coordinator, said with a touch of wry humor. He explained that when AMRG is called out for a search and rescue mission, they quickly roll through four stages of response.
First they try to learn everything they can about the situation and the lost party. This is where having filed a trip plan pay off; it tells rescuers when and where to start looking for you, and gives them a string of clues to follow. (You can download a sample trip plan form from the Department of Public Safety.)
Next, there's containment -- blocking logical exits from the area you're probably in, establishing a controlled zone where they can start to search for you by process of elimination. They'll also try attraction, for example, putting a trooper vehicle at the trailhead with its sirens on, giving you something to home in on if you're still able to respond.
Next up: An initial search, quickly checking the obvious places you might be -- trails, cabins and other shelters. If you're lost and know rescuers will be coming, planting yourself in one of those places is one of your best bets for being found.
If checking all the obvious places doesn't result in a find, it's time to start random searches. Brian Aho, another AMRG board member, explained that in general, if you can get yourself out to help than you should, but if you're really and truly lost, it's usually better to stay put in one place.
That way you don't risk wandering into already-eliminated quadrants of the search area, making it even harder for the rescuers to find you, or wandering off in the wrong direction, in which case you could walk for a very long time and never encounter a road. If you must move, leave obvious signs they can follow. "The more clues you leave, the easier it's going to be for us to find you," Aho said.
He reeled off a list of other ways you can help yourself: Carry the "10 essentials," a list of must-haves you'll find in the backcountry bible "Mountaineering: The Freedom of the Hills," which you can find plastered all over the Internet. AMRG uses emergency whistles to conduct auditory searches; carry one so you can respond in kind. They're small, light and the sound carries a lot farther than a shout, especially in the high winds.
And don't be afraid to get creative -- if conducting a rescue is a classic puzzle, so is making do until the rescue arrives. No signal mirror? Use the face of your watch to reflect light and make yourself visible to rescuers. No rain poncho or bivvy bag? Use a garbage bag instead.
Having trouble getting a cell signal, or dealing with a fading battery? Head for high ground , your chances of catching a signal are better there, and text instead of call. It saves your battery, and the message can't get garbled. If you're using a satellite phone, make sure your body isn't blocking it from the southern horizon, where the satellites are most likely to be.
The types of rescues AMRG is called out for tend to rotate through the seasons. There are more hunters needing help in the fall, avalanche responses in the winter and hiker rescues all through the summer. (Hikers are by far the most common rescue subjects, 110 in the past 10 years compared to 52 rescues for the next-largest group, snowmachiners.)
And the most common place for rescues to take place? Aho, Knapp and Lt. Steve Adams, search and rescue coordinator with the Alaska State Troopers, all agree that there are two hot spots where rescues are most common: Flattop mountain, mecca for Anchorage-area dayhikers, and Crow Pass, an equally iconic destination for backpackers. It's virtually guaranteed that AMRG will be called for at least one or two rescues around Flattop within one or two days of the summer solstice.
Will I be charged for a rescue?
If you're afraid of being charged for a legitimate rescue, Adams says you can rest easy, you won't be charged unless there's some indication of a false report or criminal conduct. (That goes for state and federal resources, including AMRG, but isn't necessarily the case if you call a private company to come and bail you out.)
That doesn't mean you should call for rescues the way you'd call for a taxi. You're responsible for your safety out there, and even in a best-case scenario rescuers can still be delayed by weather or other circumstances. "People need to always be prepared to spend at least 24 hours in the woods when they venture out for recreation, even for a short hike or ride," Adams explained.
To get there, follow Aho's tips above and educate yourself, starting with the "Outdoor Safety Briefing" link from AMRG's SAR Links page (amrg.org), or one of the Department of Public Safety-sponsored backcountry safety classes available through the North American Outdoor Institute (naoiak.org). Remember, the most important survival tool you carry is between your ears.
And if you'd like to be one of the rescuers? Go to amrg.org and click the "Training" link to see how you can get involved.